As someone who has led HR for some of the most well known global brands, i am constantly asked by people “Whats the Secret to Career Success?
I get asked this a lot. And, I’m` always a little embarrassed by it. For the most part, I mostly get this question from people who are in their twenties. They want to know “the secret path to the top.”
Usually someone will say something like “You know I spent four years in college and then another couple in grad school to get my MBA, but somehow I must have missed the course on Fast-Tracking My Career. If you had to boil it down to one thing, what would you recommend to a young, aspiring person such as myself?”
The thing is, i am not sure that i could boil down career success to just one thing.
Life is we know it, is not usually that simple.
But if i had to really, boil it down to one thing – then it would be this lesson my father taught us when we were starting our business : Be responsive
In my experience leading our family business, and then as a Fortune 500 HR leader , i meet so many people that are unresponsive.
You know the type.Whether its a fellow co-worker or vendor or even your boss. They don’t return their phone calls promptly. They don’t answer their emails quickly. and sometimes never. You have to yell and scream at them to get them to complete assignments on time. They are always promising to do something and then they never, ever never follow through. You constantly feel like you have to remind, prod, and nag them to get things done.. Their behavior creates work for everyone else and eats into their own productivity.
The sad thing, is that they are usually oblivious to their unresponsiveness.
When we were kids, most of us played “Tag.” The objective was simple: keep from becoming “It.” If someone tagged you (touched you), you became “it” until you tagged someone else. Whoever was “it” when the game ended, lost.
Business is in many ways very very similar to “Tag”. People “tag” us in countless ways every day. They place calls. They send emails. They mention something to us in a meeting. Suddenly, we are “it.” And, just like the game, if you stay “it” too long, you lose. The only winning strategy is to respond quickly and make someone else “it.”
The reality of today’s internet enabled , always-on world is this : we are now living in an “instant world.”
What’s the Secret to Career Success?
Everyone. Your Customers, Your Boss, Your Colleagues, Everyone really – want results, and they want them instantly. They dont want to have to wait. And when and if they have to wait on you – they become more and more resentful and frustrated. They start seeing you as a obstacle to getting their work done. And when that happens , it will definitely start to impact on your reputation. Pretty soon , people around you will start saying ” You know. We can never get a timely response from him.” Or “when i send her an email, i get this feeling that it goes into this outlook black-hole , where emails go to get neglected.”
Worse though, when your colleagues start to just roll their eyes and sigh at the mention of your name.
Yet, these colleagues and superiors and customers are the very people who will push you up or pull you down.
You cannot succeed without the support of your peers and subordinates.
(Go back and re-read that sentence again.)
One of the most important pieces of advice i ever received was from my boss when i became the Country HR Manager for Starbucks in Saudi Arabia . She said to me “You are building your reputation, your brand – one response, one request , one interaction at a time. People will be shaping their view of you by how you respond to them. If you are slow, they will assume you are incompetent and over your head. But if you respond quickly, they will assume that you are competent and on top of your job. And whether you like it or not, it is their perception of how you are doing your job and whether you will get buy in for the change that you are trying to effect. And more than that , how you respond will determine how fast your career advances, and how high you go. So you cant afford to be unresponsive. It will kill any chance you have of succeeding.”
When we were looking to fill a critical operational position (one that included responsibility for over 100 stores and $100 million in turnover) , the VP (instead of relying on just the competency interview) basically began asking everyone about the preferred candidate. He would call people and say to them “Whats it like to work with so and so? Hows he really doing? Do you think he could take on more responsibility?”
In responding to him , all that every one had was their experience with working with the candidates. If he had not been responsive to them, how do you think they would have responded to the questions about him? “More responsibility? Are you kidding me? He can’t handle what he has now!” It wouldn’t take too many candid responses like that to have tanked his chances of getting the job..
Sadly, i see this happening to people all the time.. I can’t tell you how many meetings I have sat in where people are complaining about someone else’s work habits. “He always waits until the last minute.” “She never plans ahead.” “I can never get him to respond to my emails.”
You may think that the people who are making these comments are too far down the food chain to matter. I can assure you they aren’t. They have a way of bubbling to the top where the decisions about your career are made.
So my advice on how to have a successful career is this : Always respond immediately , unless you have a damn good reason to wait. Now obviously, this isn’t always possible , considering how much time we spend in meetings (and drinking coffee if you work for Starbucks). Nevertheless, don’t let messages sit for longer than a day. Twenty-four hours is really the outside edge. Even if you are following some sort of task management system like Get Things Done. At the least acknowledge that you have received the message: “I received your message. I don’t have time to give it the attention it deserves right now, but you can expect to hear from me before the end of the day tomorrow.”
The great thing about being responsive is that it will quickly differentiate you from your peers. People love doing business with responsive people. Nothing will advance your career faster than this.